Another Campus Death Raises Questions About the S-word Taboo
The vague, February 17 email that went out to the entire St. Michael's College community from President John Neuhauser was written in language that's become all too familiar:
"Saint Michael’s College has experienced a terrible tragedy. A first-year student, Jordan Porco, age 18, of Andover, Connecticut, died unexpectedly in his room in Lyons Hall on the college campus Wednesday evening, February 16."
What followed were the administration's expressions of sympathy, condolences and prayer for the young man's family and friends, as well as the requisite offers to counsel or minister to any students, faculty or staff who may be having difficulty coping with the tragic loss.
And once again, another respected institution of higher learning in Vermont sidestepped an opportunity to speak frankly, publicly and without euphemism about a major public-health crisis plaguing this country: teen suicide.
On November 3, Seven Days ran this story about a similar reluctance on the part of the University of Vermont to label the October deaths of two of its students in as many weeks as suicides.
Like St. Mike's, UVM steeped its campus-wide communique in language it deemed less offensive to the student's next of kin, while offering reassurances that the death of UVM freshman Alexander Chernik was not the result of "bullying, bias or foul play."
The deliberate, self-inflicted death of another UVM student, Frank Christopher Evans, 24, in South Burlington, which occurred two weeks earlier, wasn't announced by the university at all, according to a UVM spokesperson, because Evans wasn't enrolled in school that semester.
But unlike UVM's Vermont Cynic, which merely parroted the administration's linguistic aversion for what was already a fairly well-known fact on campus, the student reporters at SMC's The Defender asked the administration and the Colchester Police hard questions about Porco's cause of death, both in the interest of dispelling campus rumors and to get to truth.
The Defender article (a collaborative effort by its entire staff) also reported that FOX 44 News in Burlington pulled its story on Porco's death because, according to the Defender, "it is company policy [at FOX] not to publish articles about suicide, unless it in regard to a public figure, or a death caused by bullying."
For Buff Lindau, St. Mike's director of marketing and communications, this was the first time in her more than 30 years at the Catholic college that she's had to report the suicide of one of her students, a painful and difficult task for any institution, let alone a Catholic one.
Nevertheless, Lindau seemed somewhat testy when asked about the Defender's coverage of the story and what she's chosen to make public about the tragedy.
“There’s been a huge array of counseling nonstop, night and day, in the residence halls as well as in the classrooms,” Lindau told Seven Days. “Our policy has been to respond to queries that, yes, a student took his own life and here’s his age and address. What else are we supposed to tell you?”
For its part, the American Association of Suicidology, a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing suicide, offers a few answers to that question. Among them: that suicide now ranks as the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages 15 to 24. Or, that one in 12 college students have made a suicide plan. Or, that it's estimated that suicide claims the lives of more than 1000 college students each year — "estimated," because many of those suicides go unreported as such by college administrators, usually at the urging of family members.
Obviously, Vermont hasn't escaped these national trends, as evidenced by two other suicides in as many days by students in Vermont's public schools. On January 18, 15-year-old Connor Menning took his own life in the bathroom of Mount Mansfield Union High School, just as the school day had begun. One day earlier, Vermont State Police reported the death of a 16-year-old Dummerston girl, also from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Though those deaths were widely reported as "unrelated," they also come at a time when the state budget for mental-health services, especially those targeting young people, have been in sharp decline. Last Thursday, a coalition of mental-health advocates, including Mount Mansfield's principal, Jennifer Botzojorns, were in Montpelier calling on lawmakers to reconsider Gov. Peter Shumlin's proposed cuts in services to people with developmental disabilities, mental illness and addiction.
Notably, Shumlin's proposed budget calls for zeroing out funding for Vermont's 92 student assistance professionals. SAPs are the school-based, mental-health professionals who, in the words of Floyd Nease, executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health, are on "the front lines" in public schools looking for problems such as substance abuse, depression and other forms of mental illness — in other words, the leading issues that put kids at greater risk of taking their own life.
“This cut does in one year what the Douglas administration’s cuts did in the last three years put together," says Nease, a former Democratic lawmaker from Johnson, about the nearly $4.8 million in proposed cuts which, when combined with matching Medicaid dollars, would total more than $11 million. “You mean to tell me that there aren’t $4.8 million worth of road projects that could wait one year?”
Nease wouldn't go so far as to condemn the practice by colleges and universities of not naming suicides when they occur. For example, he points out that administrators may be averse to prematurely describing a death as a suicide until a medical examiner has made that determination. Nease also understands administrators' desire to spare family members more pain than they've already suffered.
"What I’d like to know is, what are [school administrators] doing as a result?" he asks. "What measures are they taking to prevent it from happening again, to identify people who are in trouble, and intervene earlier. What they call it isn’t as important as what they do about it.”